Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Mars Observer, Surveyor, and Pathfinder

Mars Observer, launched on September 25, 1992, was to conduct extensive imaging work while orbiting Mars, but contact was lost with the spacecraft on August 22, 1993, as the satellite was establishing an orbit around the red planet. It is possible that a fuel tank exploded, destroying the spacecraft. Mars Global Surveyor was launched on November 7, 1996, and is continuing a long project of (among other things) detailed low-altitude mapping of the Martian surface. Unexpected oscillations in its solar panels while coming into a circular orbit around the planet caused the start of the major surface mapping program to be delayed by almost a year.

Although the Global Surveyor project is extraordinarily ambitious, the public may have been more excited by the mission of the Mars Pathfinder. The craft was launched on December 4, 1996, and landed on Mars the following summer, using a combination parachute and rocket-braking system, as well as an air bag system to ensure a soft, upright landing. A “micro-rover” vehicle was deployed, which began transmitting extraordinary panoramic and close-up pictures of the Martian landscape. It is little wonder that Pathfinder has caused such a stir. We’ve always been fascinated by Mars, which, of all the planets, seems most like Earth and has often been thought of as possibly harboring life—even civilization.

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